Surrey, England, December 1809
“Dash it all! What is that wretched pirate doing at an earl’s country house?”
Her twin sister’s vexed outburst made Lily Crawford glance toward the frosted window where Iris stood, gazing outward.
“Pirate?” Lily shook her head. “What are you talking about? Lady Killoran invited us here for a Christmas house party, not a pantomime.”
“Precisely!” Iris pointed down at the front courtyard of Beckwith Abbey in a dramatic gesture of disdain. “The countess assured Aunt Althea that all her male guests would be of the finest pedigree, no wretched fortune hunters to plague us. Yet there is that incorrigible Captain Turner descending as if he owned the place. Everyone knows he hasn’t a drop of noble blood.”
“Neither have we,” Lily gently reminded her sister as she joined Iris at the window. “How can you snub Captain Turner for his lack of pedigree when you resent the titled ladies who turn up their noses at us?”
“That is different,” Iris insisted in a sharp tone. She was not accustomed to having her opinions questioned by her meek, retiring sister. “We have accomplishments and deportment to equal any lady in the ton. Captain Turner positively enjoys shocking everyone in Society with his rough, blunt manner.”
Ordinarily, her sister’s vehement response would have been enough to silence Lily on the subject, but for some reason she could not hold her tongue. “A privateer is not the same thing as a pirate, though I expect the captain has been accustomed to taking a firm hand with his crew. As for being a fortune hunter, I hear he has considerable wealth of his own. He does not need to marry an heiress to feather his nest.”
Iris gave a contemptuous sniff, but did not try to contradict her sister. “I do not care if he has ten thousand a year! No amount of money could induce me to accept such an ill-bred creature. I want a husband I can be proud of.”
During the last fortnight of London’s Little Season, Lily had frequently heard her sister heap abuse on Captain Aaron Turner. The captain did not seem to be discouraged by Iris’s rebuffs, but instead redoubled his efforts to win her regard. Lily was anxious to discover if Captain Turner looked as much a blackguard as her sister had made him sound.
Peering down at the courtyard, she spied three men engaged in conversation. Though she had never met Captain Turner in person, Lily had no difficulty picking him out of the trio. His rugged, chiselled features had clearly been bronzed by relentless sun and wind. His wide stance and thrust-back shoulders gave him an unmistakable air of confidence and command. His thick dark hair hung almost to his shoulders. The man might not be a pirate, but Lily could not deny he looked the way she imagined a pirate might. The sight of him provoked a quiver of alarm, but also an unexpected flicker of fascination.
“Perhaps Captain Turner has not come to stay,” Lily made a belated effort to pacify her sister. “He may only have brought the other gentlemen from London on his way to spend Christmas elsewhere.”
Iris considered her sister’s suggestion. “I hope you are right. I cannot abide the thought of that scoundrel lurking about, intimidating more worthy suitors to keep their distance, the way he did in London. Why, I might have been engaged to Lord Parrsborough by now if not for his interference.”
Lily could not hold that offense against Captain Turner. She had been desperately alarmed that her sister might make a match with the Earl of Onslow’s feckless heir. If the captain had managed to prevent that calamity, he had done her a service.
As she mulled over that notion, Captain Turner suddenly turned to survey the handsome façade of Beckwith Abbey. His gaze rose at once to the window through which the Crawford sisters were watching him.
A sharp stab of panic struck Lily, as if they had been caught doing something illicit. But the captain did not seem to mind their scrutiny. His mouth stretched into a broad grin that was visible even from a distance. Then he doffed his hat and made an extravagant bow.
“Presumptuous beast!” Iris cried and spun away from the window.
Lily knew she should follow her sister’s example. From earliest childhood, her personality had been as reserved and bashful as Iris’s was vivacious. The mere prospect of being regarded by a gentleman had long filled her with dismay – especially one of such imposing presence as Captain Turner.
And yet, some bewildering force rooted her to the spot, unable to move or look away. Her cheeks flushed with heat, as if she were standing in front of a roaring fire rather than an icy window. To her further confusion, her hand seemed to rise of its own accord and acknowledge the captain’s gesture with a cheerful wave.
“Lily!” her sister shrieked. “What on earth has got into you?”
As she staggered back from the window, Lily wondered that as well. She usually avoided social gatherings whenever possible. When forced out of comfortable isolation, she cultivated an air of silent disdain to mask her timidity. What could have possessed her to behave in such a forward manner toward a man she knew only by reputation—and a very unfavorable reputation at that?
“For pity sake, do not encourage that odious creature!” Iris’s full lower lip thrust out and her fine brows drew together over the bridge of her delicate nose. “What if he mistook you for me from a distance? I might never be able to get rid of him.”
Mistaken for Iris? In spite of Lily’s consternation, the idea almost made her laugh. Although they were twins and their features identical in every respect, their opposite natures made them appear quite dissimilar. No one ever had the slightest difficulty telling which Crawford sister was which.
Lily always wore her hair in a simple, subdued style. According to their aunt, it made her look several years older than Iris with her girlish froth of curls. A sickly childhood had left Lily pale and slender, while her sister possessed a fine figure and bright complexion.
Lily shook her head. “I’m certain you do not have to worry about the captain making that mistake, unless he is half-blind.”
Even as she muttered those words in an apologetic tone, Lily wondered if her sister’s unlikely suggestion might explain her strange behaviour. The captain had been too far away to require conversation, which she found so awkward and unsettling. The distance, and possibility of being mistaken for Iris, might have overcome the worst of her timidity.
Iris seemed to realize how unfounded her worry was. “I suppose you are right. But if Captain Turner does end up staying at Beckwith Abbey, I shall waste no time making certain he knows the truth.”
A choking lump of dismay leapt into Lily’s throat. “Please don’t, Iris! It would be so humiliating. I could never hold up my head for the rest of our visit.”
“You hardly do that anyway.” Iris turned toward the glass above the dressing table and fluffed her hair. “Except when you are pretending to be too haughty to speak. I do not see why your embarrassment should signify more than my dislike of that odious creature.”
Before Lily could come up with a satisfactory response, a brief, insistent rap sounded on the door of their guest chamber, making her jump.
Without waiting to be invited, their aunt swept in. A widow of comfortable means, Althea Henderson had been a great beauty in her day. In her mid-forties, she was still quite handsome and always impeccably groomed.
“My dears, are you ready?” Mrs. Henderson swept a scrutinizing glance over her nieces and seemed satisfied with their appearance. “You must come at once to greet the gentlemen. They have just arrived from London!”
“We know, Aunt Althea.” Iris gave each of her cheeks a little pinch to summon a becoming blush. “We saw them down in the courtyard. You will never guess what Lily did, the little goose.”
Lily’s cheeks tingled with embarrassment as, if she had been pinching them hard for an hour.
Fortunately their aunt took little interest in her doings, good or ill. “You may tell me all about it later, my love. Now you must come and make the best possible impression before the other ladies beat you to it.
Lily bit back a protest she knew would be useless. Her beautiful, vivacious sister would be an immediate favourite with the gentlemen, no matter how many other pretty faces they encountered first. She on the other hand could not hope to find favour, nor did she wish to. Already she was heartily sick of the marriage market, where eligible men made it clear they only admired the size of her fortune. The sooner she could protect her future by finding her sister an honest, responsible husband, the sooner she could settle down and enjoy the tranquil spinsterhood she craved.
From the novel Scandal Takes a Holiday
Publication Date: March 2017
Copyright © 2017 by Deborah Hale